48 Hours In: Athens
A visit to the Greek capital is a chance to relive the Classical past –and to enjoy the city's more contemporary attractions, says Adrian Mourby
Why go now?
After years of economic gloom, the Greek capital has a buzz again. The new National Museum of Contemporary Art (1) opens in June in a converted brewery (www.emst.gr) at the junction of Kallirois and Amvrisiou Frantzi Avenues. First up is a specially curated exhibition of its "Treasures": 500 works across all five floors of this 1950s industrial block.
The Athens & Epidaurus Festival (greekfestival.gr/en; 1 June-16 August), has events and performances focusing on Greek culture.
I travelled with Aegean Airlines (00 30 210 626 1000; aegeanair.com) which flies from Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester and, from 10 June, Birmingham. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow, easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) from Gatwick, Manchester and Edinburgh, and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted.
Athens airport is 32km east of the centre. The blue Metro Line 3 (oasa.gr; €8) takes 30 minutes to reach Syntagma (Constitution) Square (2) and a couple of minutes more to Monastiraki Station (3) in the city centre. Services stop at midnight. The inaccurately named X95 Airport Express bus runs all night, but takes a minimum of 45 minutes to reach Syntagma Square (2) and costs €5.
There is a taxi rank outside the airport's Arrivals with a daytime flat-rate fare of €35 to anywhere within the centre (€50 from midnight to 5am).
Get your bearings
Athens grew up around the Acropolis (4), a rocky outcrop in the middle of a basin ringed by bigger hills. During the Ottoman Empire the city shrank in size and importance but, after independence in 1834, the first Greek kings expanded north of the old city walls around the royal palace – now the Parliament Building (5) on Syntagma Square.
Much of the city's oldest housing and retail space clusters around the Acropolis in the Plaka and Monastiraki neighbourhoods. Restoration is ongoing, and these picturesque "villages" now attract a lot of tourists.
The Greek National Tourism Organisation office (6) is at 18-20 Dionysiou Areopagitou Street (00 30 210 331 0392; visitgreece.gr), close to the Akropoli metro station (9am–7pm weekdays, 10am–4pm at weekends).
For sheer Belle-Epoque splendour, see the refurbished and impossibly sumptuous Hotel Grande Bretagne (7) on Syntagma Square (00 30 21 0333 0000; grandebretagne.gr). There's butler service in most rooms and a marble lobby. Doubles from €245, room only.
The New Hotel (8) at Filellinon 16 (00 30 210 327 3000; newhotel.gr) is a high-concept design hotel. The lobby is decorated with smashed-up pieces of furniture from the previous hotel. Doubles from €185, including breakfast.
Fresh Hotel (9) in the meat-packing district at Sofokleous 26 (00 30 210 524 8511; freshhotel.gr) is simple and stylish, with Acropolis views from its rooftop pool. Doubles from €93.50, including breakfast.
Take a view
Areios Pagos (10) is a rock just below the Acropolis (4) where trials for murder were held in ancient times. These days it's a perfect place from which to gaze north across modern Athens while the Acropolis rises immediately behind you. There are steps and handrails to make sure you get a good view, safely. Down below lie the Roman and Ancient Greek market places, surrounded by trees and lawns.
Take a hike
Athens contains the vestiges of many civilisations, not just Periclean Greece. Start at the Roman Agora (11), Athens's "new" 1st-century market place on Epaminonda (open daily 8am-3pm; entry €2) the location of which demonstrates Emperor Augustus's preference for building on the flat ground below the Acropolis.
Turn left, into Taxiarcheon and follow the hill down past the Greek Orthodox Church of Panagia Grigoroussa (12), turning left into Dexippou from where you get a great view into the 2nd-century Library of Hadrian (13) (open daily 8am-3pm, entry €2).
Turn right down Arios Street where the road is flanked by shops selling Hellenic helmets and beach towels, football shirts and museum art. After taking in the monumental façade of Hadrian's Library (13), ascend the steps to the 18th-century Tzisdarakis Mosque (14), now a museum of Greek Folk Art (open daily, except Tuesdays, from 9am-2.30pm, admission €2). The view down into Monastiriki Square shows Athens at its gaudiest, with fruit stalls and musicians adding to the throng.
Gaze down into the exposed section of the Eridanos river (which was bricked over when Hadrian was Emperor). Descend six steps to the medieval pavement level in front of the tiny brick Church of Panagia Pantanasa (15), which was once a women's monastery and from which the Monastiriki area gained its name.
Lunch on the run
I Thessaloniki stou Psyrri (16) at 1 Iroon Square (00 30 210 322 2088) is a popular shop in the Psyrrri district north of Monastiraki which sells Thessalonian snack food. Buy your slice of spanakopita (spinach pie) for €1.70 and eat it from the paper bag in the square outside.
Retail ramble: Monastiraki’s flea market (Alamy) Window shopping
Head down Adrianou Street following the signs to the flea market. The further west you get towards Thiseio Station (17), the more eccentric the shops become, particularly in side streets such as Normanou and Philippou. At times it can seem as if the entire contents of a 1930s household have been emptied into a shop window. The market in Avissinias Square (18) is a riot of 20th-century Athenian bric-a-brac and vintage clothing.
Osterman (19) on St Irinis Square (00 30 210 324 3331; osterman.gr) was recently converted from a derelict Victorian fabric shop to one of Athens's trendiest wine bars. Arrive early to guarantee a seat outside on the square.
Dining with the locals
Salon de Bricolage (20) at 9 Alopekis Street (00 30 210 729 6500; salondebricolage.gr) is the city's first members-only arts club, with a dramatically austere bar downstairs and a cosy dining room above. It is, however, open to visitors from overseas for dinner, if you book ahead. Its sushi and sashimi are superb. Try the sake sashimi (with salmon) for €12.
Alternatively, Papadakis (21) at 15 Fokilidou Street (00 30 210 360 8621) is an upmarket taverna that specialises in fish and is run by Greek TV chef Argiro Barbarigou. Try the octopus stewed in honey and sweet wine for €18.
Sunday morning: go to church
You're in for a long service (from 7am to 11am) at St Irinis (22) in Eolou Street (00 30 210 322 6042) but this small church in the old flower market is a delight. Dark and tiny inside, the church feels like somewhere that generations upon generations have prayed within. St Irinis's functioned as the city's first cathedral until the 1840s, when money was raised to construct the new purpose-built Metropolitan Cathedral which can be found on Mitropoleos square (23).
Out to brunch
Manas Kouzina Kouzina (24) at 27 Eolou Street (00 30 210 325 2335) is a new buffet initiative by Greek chef Thodoris Fourakis who not only makes sure the name of each dish is displayed at the counter but also the village from which the recipe comes. The restaurant sits below Emporikon, which was the first commercial hotel to be built in the independent Kingdom of Greece in 1850. It is due to reopen in 2015.
Statuesque: inside the New Acropolis Museum (Alamy) A walk in the park
In the 1950s, Athens's ancient market-place, now known as The Ancient Agora Museum (25), was excavated by archaeologists from the United States. At the same time, the area was planted with indigenous trees that have grown up to create a green oasis next to Thiseio Metro station. Wander leafy paths between the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos and the remarkably undamaged Temple of Hephaestus (open 10am-3pm daily, entry €2).
Take a ride
Cars are the great enemy of any 48 hours spent in Athens. To get around quickly, try Lazaros Mavrakis's motorbike tours via dopios.com. Lazaros provides bespoke two-hour pillion tours on his motorcycle for €59. He will come and collect you and he'll bring a spare helmet.
The New Acropolis Museum (26) at 15 Dionysiou Areopagitou Street (00 30 210 900 0900; theacropolismuseum.gr; open 8am-8pm daily) is a superb museum which explains the citadel above it. Treasures from the various civilisations to have occupied the Acropolis are arranged in chronological order and there is an excellent audio-visual display covering eight centuries of history (traducing Lord Elgin in the process).
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